August 31, 2012

And the painted ponies go up and down

“This is mostly what we do,” With-a-Why said to his girlfriend. They were snuggled at one end of the couch. With-a-Why gestured towards the rest of his family: “We sit around and do nothing.”

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and I sat at the other end of the couch, drinking mugs of hot tea. Shaggy Hair Boy sat at the piano bench, sometimes playing, sometimes talking. Tall Boy, who is staying with us for a few days until he finds a place to live, had his laptop open but was mostly looking up to join the conversation. Boy-in-Black, stretched out on the floor to do core exercises, kept looking up to talk in the midst of his routine.

My husband stood at the kitchen table, looking through the bin of cookies that With-a-Why and Shy Smile had made that afternoon. But his action brought jeers of disapproval from the rest of the household. “You aren’t allowed to look at the cookies,” With-a-Why called over to him. “You have to just reach in and take one. Then you have to eat it even if it’s one of the burned ones.”

“It’s like a Cookie Russian Roulette,” Shaggy Hair Boy explained. My husband reached in, grabbed a cookie, and then flipped it over dramatically. It was nicely browned. He grinned triumphantly.

This relaxed summer mode, where we all just hang out together doing nothing, won’t last much longer. Soon we’ll all be busy with classes and research and work. Boy-in-Black will head off to a conference. My daughter will be getting more clients at the clinic. Shaggy Hair Boy will tackle courses for the math major he just added. With-a-Why goes back to school right after Labor Day. At the end of the month, my oldest two will move into a house they are renting in the next town.

I  like fall — the cold nights, the spectacular foliage, and the excitement of having students back on campus — but it’s hard to let summer go. This was likely the last time I’ll have all my kids living at home. They just keep growing up.

August 28, 2012

Packed with care

Luckily, we had bright sunshine for the day that our first year students arrived on campus. A swarm of upper class students in green t-shirts roamed the sidewalk in front of our residence hall, descending upon each car that pulled up. The student volunteers were so efficient at unloading the cars that I didn’t even help much. Mostly, my role was to patrol for anxious parents and go calm them down.

You can tell a lot about students by what they bring. Pretty much every student had a laptop computer, of course. But I also saw plants, packed lovingly into the backs of small cars. I saw several guitars, lots of bicycles, and at least one set of antlers. One smart mother had brought a bin of homemade chocolate chip cookies and was handing them out to the student volunteers. You can bet her daughter had plenty of help moving in.

August 27, 2012

Roll up the floor

Helping with the flower arranging

When I stopped at my parents’ house on Friday evening, I was greeted by Red-haired Sister’s four dogs. I got past the frenzy of barking, but I could barely walk through the house because it was so filled with flowers: vases of them on every surface, extra tubs of cut flowers on the floor. Red-haired Sister was working furiously, cutting stems, forming bouquets, piecing together boutonnieres.

Schoolteacher Niece, the oldest of the grandchildren, was getting married! Out-of-town family sent text messages as they traveled to the big event. Red-haired Niece, who had done an awful lot of the planning, raced around to make sure all the nice touches she had planned were in place. We all checked the weather forecast, since the ceremony was outdoors, a risky venture in this region.

We’re a family who usually gathers at my parents’ camp, where bathing suits and old t-shirts are the preferred attire. So it was fun to see everyone dressed up. My sons wore suits for the first time, and my kids cooperated in posing for dozens of photos.

The sun shone, the ceremony went beautifully, and soon the party was in full swing. We ate, we talked, we danced. Pretty much everyone in my family loves to dance, so once the formal dances were over, the dance floor was crowded for the rest of the night. It was a great way to end the summer.

Father and daughter.

The father/daughter dance: Schoolteacher Niece with Blond Brother-in-law.

August 22, 2012

If there are birds in heaven

“If something’s bothering you,” Ornithologist Guy said, “Go outside somewhere and take a long hike. By the time you come back, you won’t even remember what was bothering to you.” He was talking to a group of first year students — he loved to hang out with our newest crop of students and give them advice — but I was sitting on the lawn next to him, and I think of his words every time I’m in a miserable mood and force myself outside for a long walk.

Ornithologist Guy was a colleague here at Little Green — and a friend. I’ve mentioned him on this blog before. Many times over the last 20 years, I’ve started my day by eating breakfast with him and Scientist Guy in the college snack bar, where we are often joined by students.

Ornithologist Guy was blunt and opinionated. It was fun to argue with him because he always got right to the point. He loved a good joke, even if it was at his own expense. He was smart, and often unexpectedly sweet. He was just a few years older than me — our oldest kids are the same age — and he was a strong, outsdoorsy type guy who loved to walk in the woods. He knew everything about birds, and he loved teaching students to love them as much as he did.

I did not expect him to die.

These last few years, he’s disappeared from time to time for treatments. I knew he had cancer, but everyone thought he was beating it. I saw him last at the end of spring semester. He gave me a hug and asked me about the hikes I’d be taking over the summer. I fully expected to see him this week when I returned to campus.

Then yesterday, I got the email. I’m still in shock.

When I checked facebook last night, students had heard the news and were sharing memories in their status updates. One wrote: “If there are birds in heaven, I sure as hell know that Guy will be teaching everyone about them.” 

August 20, 2012

That's what she played

Now that I’m home from my summer travels, I finally have time to practice the piano. The Mendelssohn piece I'm working on is harder than anything I’ve played before. When I couldn’t remember what Beautiful Piano Teacher told me in my lesson, I called With-a-Why over to the piano.

Me: So this little tiny note? What am I supposed to do with that?
With-a-Why: It’s called a grace note.

He glanced at the music and played the measure.

Me: So you just stick it in fast?
With-a-Why: Please don’t say that.

Boy-in-Black, sitting at his computer, looked up and met his little brother’s eyes. They both grinned. Then With-a-Why glanced at the music that I’ve been working on for weeks, sat down at the bench, and played the piece though all the way, beautifully. Even though he’d never seen it before.

August 19, 2012

I heard it in the wind last night

Water lily

This summer was filled with trips to beautiful places, visits from good friends, and hot, sunny weather almost every day. Having all my kids living at home worked out despite the fact that we’re a little bit crowded. It’s been a wonderful summer.

Starting tomorrow, my life gets busy again, with classes to teach, meetings to attend, and work to do. I’ll miss the relaxed pace of summer. I’m making my usual resolutions to not let my life get too frantic. I want to make sure I still have time for morning walks, meditation every day, writing in my journal, playing the piano, dates with my husband, and long talks with friends. Wish me luck.

August 17, 2012

Encounter with the MOOC MOOC Monster

Darkness had spread across my world, but a single square of light shimmered in the Google Documents warehouse. A young woman from New Zealand sat cross-legged on the dirt floor next to me, studying the sheet of paper spread out before us. We were alone. 

The blank paper glowed with possibilities. New Zealand Woman had a vision for what the spreadsheet should look like — a place to gather sexy computer tools — but when she tried to write, nothing happened. She looked up in frustration. “How do we change it so that I can edit?” 

“I’m not sure,” I said. Just because I’d volunteered to help make a spreadsheet of computer tools didn’t mean I had the slightest idea how to use any of them. I started picking up pens and trying to scribble on the blank sheet that remained, annoyingly, blank. My usual method of figuring out new computer tools is to just experiment like crazy. New Zealand Woman, it turns out, was a kindred spirit. Soon we were both grabbing every pen in sight, clicking madly to see if we could make them work. 

That’s when we heard a noise, a door opening. 

“I think someone else is here,” New Zealand Woman whispered to me. 
“Maybe they overheard us talking on Twitter,” I said. 

The steps came closer. I could feel the creature breathing. The list on the screen said only “Anonymous 192.” It could be anyone or anything. But New Zealand Woman decided to take a risk. She stood up boldly and called out: “Hello Earthling! Welcome!” 

The creature didn’t respond. I jumped to my feet, yelling and waving my hands in the air, the way I would if I met a grizzly bear on a trail. New Zealand Woman began typing in all caps, as loudly as she could. 

“I don’t think it can hear,” I said. “Maybe it doesn’t know enough to click and open the chat function.” New Zealand Woman ran to the nearest wall and scrawled: “Welcome Earthling! Who are you? We need your help!” 

I jumped into the comments, banging pots and pans. New Zealand used that distraction to sneak back onto Twitter. Then I heard her squeal. “It’s the MOOC MOOC monster!” 

I dropped the pot that I was banging against the metal beam of cyberspace. We both ran into the dark shadows of the warehouse. New Zealand Woman found the MOOC MOOC creature first and gave him a hug. 

Everyone loves the MOOC MOOC monster. After several hugs, he transformed into the Jedi Knight we’d gotten to know over twitter, and he helped us figure out how to finish setting up the spreadsheet. He’d left the Google Doc door open, and soon a fourth person joined us, a smart young woman dressed in orange, Anonymous 196. She sat right down at the spreadsheet and began filling it out immediately. 

“Hey, Person in Orange!” I greeted her. 

“I come in peace,” she said. “It's the middle of the night where I am. But I have insomnia.” She lived, it turns out, in my time zone, only about 60 miles away, more than ten times closer than either of my other collaborators. We began working on the document, cursors blinking as we filled in rectangles. 

"What should we say about Pinterest?" New Zealand Woman asked. "That it's been taken over by pictures of baby stuff, wedding crap, and pretty clothing?"

Jedi Knight jumped in with snarky comments, and the two of them made me laugh so hard that I couldn't type. We talked about the MOOC MOOC community, all of us feeling warm and fuzzy about the folks we'd met this week. We worked, we traded stories, and it all ended with a big group hug. 

Then I shut my laptop, returning to the dark of my own house, where the rest of my family had been sleeping for hours. 

That was Wednesday night’s late night experience with MOOC MOOC – a massive open online course (MOOC) about MOOCs. I collaborated with three other people in two other time zones, folks I’ve never met in person. By the time I woke up the next day, the MOOC MOOC community had crowded the warehouse, taken over the document and filled in the blank spaces with all kinds of sexy tools. I'm loving the anonymous collaboration.

Here’s my challenge to my readers: go look at the document (click here) and see if you can add anything.

August 15, 2012

Sorting through his life

The last time I visited Little Biker Boy — the boy who used to live down the street and now lives in a foster home — his foster mother said that she wanted him to make a scrapbook to help sort out his life. “We don’t have any photos of him,” she said. “You don’t have any, do you?”

Little Biker Boy and I looked at each other, and he grinned. I take pictures constantly. I have hundreds of photos of him on my computer.

So tonight when I went over to visit him at his foster home, I brought more than 200 photos I’d printed out. I’ve got pictures of him helping to decorate our Christmas tree. I’ve got pictures of him dyeing Easter eggs at my kitchen table. I’ve got pictures of him playing in the snow in my front yard and running under the sprinkler in my back yard.

Little Biker Boy kept holding pictures up and saying, “Look! Remember that?”

When we were done looking at the photos, we took a walk through his neighborhood. “I’ll show you where there’s a dead rabbit,” he said. He led me to a drainage pipe, and sure enough, there was a rabbit in an advanced stage of decay.

When we got back to his house, he got out his sidewalk chalk and we drew pictures on the back patio. “This chalk is supposed to glow in the dark,” he said. It wasn’t dark yet, so we sat on the swinging bench, him leaning against me while I rubbed his neck and shoulders. He talked quietly, and I listened. The chalk didn’t really glow in the dark, but fireflies appeared to dance in the warm night air.


August 13, 2012

MOOC Midnight Madness Sale

So this week, I’m doing a MOOC.

Yeah, I know how that sounds. So here’s the explanation for my parents and anyone else who doesn’t spend time online talking to education geeks: MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. These courses are the hot new thing everyone on the internet is talking about. Imagine a course taught over the internet, offered for free by college professors, with hundreds or thousands of students signed up, with varying levels of participation from that massive number of students. That’s what the MOOC looks like right now.

So I decided to take a MOOC to learn about MOOCs. That makes it a MOOC MOOC, which is coincidentally the same sound a monster makes when it’s eating everything in sight. Every time I sign into the course, I am greeted with a picture of some weird monster which, I am told, I would recognize if I watched more geeky movies.

From what I can see, the few hundred people who have signed up to take this particular course are college professors, educators, and librarians. For the most part, we’re the type folks who might design or facilitate a MOOC. I’m guessing that makes it a fairly atypical MOOC. Right now, it feels more like an academic conference than a course.

But it’s a MOOC, none-the-less. And so far, it’s been a fun experience. The course started at midnight, which was quite exciting. It was like staying up late to buy tickets to a concert! Right away, folks started chiming in to say who they were and where they’re from.

A MOOC, it turns out, is addictive for someone who is an obsessive reader. How could I go to sleep when people kept chiming in with interesting details about themselves and making smart observations? Then there was a virtual social hour on twitter. Instead of free booze and food, they offered only a space to exchange ideas. That sounds like a risky way to have a party, but it worked. People came. I had intended to lurk, since everything I know about MOOCs came from the course readings that we all had access to, but even online, I’m too much of an extrovert. About five minutes into the social hour, I’d jumped into several conversations, which were all happening at once, just like any fun cocktail party.

The participatory nature of this MOOC is what’s making it a great experience. Although I’m dimly aware that there are four people who did the hard work of putting the MOOC together, they are most certainly not giving lectures or setting themselves up as experts. I’ve seen them trouble-shooting when folks have issues with figuring out the technology and I’ve seen them modeling behavior, like introducing themselves on a discussion thread so that we’d all follow suit, but otherwise, they are encouraging participants to take the lead.

Last night, some time after midnight, I found myself videochatting with three other participants in two other countries, all of us trying to figure out why we couldn’t hear a fourth person, whose microphone was on the fritz. Today, we’re working in groups to write collaborative documents about MOOCs. If you’ve never worked with a Google Doc before, imagine typing into a document that other people also have access to, so that you can all be typing, deleting, and editing at the same time. It’s crazy fun.

Less than 48 hours into this MOOC, it’s already become my newest form of procrastination. Thank goodness it’s only a one week course. I like that MOOCs have a beginning and an end. Otherwise, I’d never get any sleep.

August 12, 2012

Summers are for playing


I admit that I haven't watched any of the Olympics this summer. But that doesn't mean I haven't witnessed demonstrations of strength, agility, and balance.

August 09, 2012

Lazy days of doing nothing

As the fog withdraws

Even during the middle of the day, it was easy to find beaches and coves that were empty. My husband and I spent one morning hiking up and down some rocky crags, sitting in a sheltered spot to watch the fog moving out, and climbing down to a beach that we had all to ourselves.

I’d clambered out onto some wet rocks when I looked down and noticed some bright colors in the tide pools. I saw a bright orange starfish, then some red ones, and some brilliant green sea anenomes. I called to my husband and we spent a happy couple of hours just wandering around, looking at the creatures that appeared every time the water receded.


August 08, 2012

Nope. Not me.

Through the fog

Often after I post a vacation photo on my blog, someone will ask, “Is that you in the photo?”

I’m trying to imagine how that would be possible. I suppose I could bring a tripod to the beach, shove it into the wet sand, add my camera, set a timer, and run really fast down the beach until I was just a figure in the distance. The hard part is that within ten seconds, I’d have to turn and try to act like I was strolling without a care in the world, when really I’d be frantically worried about a wave knocking over the tripod and ruining my camera.

It’s far easier to take photos of strangers.

I’m usually by myself on early morning walks, and I choose deserted places. But if I wait long enough, another figure will eventually appear. In the early morning, it’s often someone walking a dog, or carrying a fishing pole, or peering through binoculars at a bird. Or someone, like me, with a camera, out to capture the early light.

August 07, 2012

Look! A lighthouse!

Conversation along the way

I can never resist a lighthouse. As soon as I see a tower on the horizon, I say to my husband, "We have to stop!"

I think it's a conditioned response, based on childhood afternoons working on jigsaw puzzles. The very image of a lighthouse triggers memories. I imagine myself snapping pieces together at a card table in front of my parents' picture window, and I half expect my mother to appear with an afterschool snack of cookies and milk.

The fresnel lens combines the science of the prism with the beauty of the stained glass window. At one lighthouse, the guide let a bunch of us tourists climb to the very top and stand right next to a working fresnel lens, so close I could have touched the glass surfaces, if I hadn't been given strict orders not to. "The lens was made in Paris, " said the tour guide. "It's irreplaceable. They don't make them any more." I barely even glanced out the window at the view because I was so busy studying the many surfaces of shiny glass that reflected back the sunlight, the clouds, and the colors of my clothing.

As we climbed back down the winding tower staircase, I tried to imagine myself climbing them on a dark stormy night to make sure the warning beacon was still functioning. I'm not sure I can picture myself as a lighthouse keeper -- the job seems more suited to a hermit than an extrovert like me  -- but I can totally picture myself turning into one of those cheery old ladies who gives enthusiastic tours of lighthouses.

Inside the lighthouse

August 06, 2012

The benefits of jet lag

When I travel to the west coast, my body stays on east coast time. The first morning of our trip, I was wide-awake by 4:30 am.

It’s the best time of day. I pulled on a fleece, grabbed my camera, and slipped out to walk the beach. The cool, thick fog felt wonderful after the hot summer we’ve had at home.

That became my routine for our vacation. I’d start each day by walking on the beach for a couple of hours. We were traveling down the coast, so it was a different beach every couple of days, with new places to explore – sand dunes, rocky cliffs, tide pools, piers. Usually I’d walk for at least an hour before seeing even one other person. That includes my husband, who for some reason does not get jet lag, and was usually just waking up when I would return to the room with my feet sandy and cold from wading in the surf.

One morning, I saw a man coming down the beach. I could tell he was old: he moved with difficulty, using two sticks to keep himself in balance. I was feeling sorry for him — I could see that the sand made it hard for him to walk — until I got close enough to see his face.

He looked elated. He lumbered a few steps closer to me, leaned heavily on the left stick, and waved his free hand toward the waves that were pounding down on the wet sand. “Isn’t this great? I haven’t been to the ocean in years.”

I grinned back. “Yep. There’s nothing else like it.” We stood together and looked out through the fog. Shorebirds were running along the wet sand. The Pacific smells different than the Atlantic to me — not as salty somehow – but the rhythm of the surf is much the same. We had the whole long beach to ourselves, and even the houses had disappeared behind the fog.

“It’s a great morning,” he said. We smiled at each other in agreement. He shifted his weight again, got himself moving, and kept on going down the beach, leaving footsteps blurred by the walking sticks and the wind that came in from the sea.

Old man and the sea